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The best cheap phones from Mobile World Congress

·Contributing Editor
These refurbished iPhones were among the many low-cost handsets at Mobile World Congress. (image: Rob Pegoraro)
These refurbished iPhones were among the many low-cost handsets at Mobile World Congress. (image: Rob Pegoraro)

BARCELONA—Forget the foldable phones already.

While devices such as Samsung’s Galaxy Fold and Huawei’s Mate X may let you unfold them to expand their displays from phone to tablet sizes, they also carry a disproportionate price premium. You can easily spend less if you buy a separate tablet and phone—and if you choose one of the value-priced models on display at the MWC trade show here, you could get two phones and a tablet.

The catch for vendors of these cheaper smartphones: getting the attention of customers in a market still dominated by carriers and their own storefronts.

Nokia 3.2 and 4.2

HMD Global’s Nokia phones have become an interesting Android option, because their software is so boring. Instead of stitching on an extra interface, HMD bundles a standard, current release of Google’s (GOOG, GOOGL) mobile operating system, then promptly ships each software update. Most Nokia Android phones now qualify as Android One devices, meaning they’re promised at least two years of software upgrades.

The $139-and-up Nokia 3.2, with a 6.3-inch screen, and the $169-and-up 4.2, with a 5.7-inch screen, check off most of the boxes: fingerprint unlocking (except for the cheapest 3.2), NFC mobile-payment support and a microSD card slot to augment the otherwise sub-par 16GB or 32GB of storage. The 4.2 adds a button to invoke Google Assistant.

The Nokia 4.2. (image: Nokia)
The Nokia 4.2. (image: Nokia)

The phones don’t, however, include a USB-C connector, but instead ship with older micro-USB cables.

Two prepaid wireless services also now sell Nokia phones: Cricket Wireless, owned by AT&T (T), carries the Nokia 3.1 Plus, and the prepaid brand at Verizon Wireless (VZ) offers the Nokia 2V. Those, however, don’t get an Android One designation, since the carriers control software-update delivery.

Maurizio Angelone, HMD’s vice president for the Americas, professed a trust in carriers that longtime Android users may not share: “I totally believe the U.S. carriers also understand the value of software upgrades.”

(Verizon is Yahoo Finance’s parent company)

Sony Xperia 10 and 10 Plus

Sony’s past Android efforts have been distinguished by high-end features and feeble sales. With the new Xperia 10, $349 with a 6-inch screen, and 10 Plus, $430 with a 6.5-inch display, the Japanese firm is trying something else: affordable pricing and a deal from a U.S. carrier.

The Sony Xperia 10 (image: Sony)
The Sony Xperia 10 (image: Sony)

Both feature screens with an extra-tall 21:9 aspect ratio (intended for movie viewing and running two apps side by side), dual rear cameras for better depth-of-focus effects, fingerprint unlocking, 64GB of storage expandable via microSD and USB-C charging. Although neither has an Android One designation, they ship with the current Android Pie release and minimal alterations to Google’s software.

Sony also secured Verizon certification for the two new models—not necessary to use them on the carrier’s network, but it should ease taking one to the service—and a promotional offer: Buyers who switch to Verizon will get a $250 prepaid MasterCard.

Motorola G7 series

The phone vendor that Google bought and then sold to Lenovo introduced this trio of phones a few weeks before MWC, all with a “water repellent” design, unlocking via fingerprint or face recognition, microSD card storage expansion and USB-C charging.

The Moto G7. (image: Lenovo)
The Moto G7. (image: Lenovo)

The $199 G7 Play offers a 5.7-inch screen, while the $249 G7 Power and $299 G7 include 6.2-inch displays and dual rear cameras. The G7 Power touts “up to 3 days” of battery life (which may translate to one day if you’re a journalist covering MWC), while the G7 proper includes 64GB of storage, up from the others’ 32GB.

All three ship with Android Pie but don’t get an Android One certification—which, considering how Motorola has fallen behind in delivering Android updates, invites some unease.

Remade’s iPhones

Seeing a row of iPhones shown off at MWC is weird, since Apple (AAPL) doesn’t exhibit here. Seeing the back of each in such colors as a shade of green described as “mousse d’amazonie” (“Amazonian foam”) is weirder.

That display came from a French firm named Remade, which buys used iPhones from carriers and other bulk sources and then puts them through a rebuilding process that involves new glass on the front, a new battery inside and that replacement back—adding up to a level of polish that the company says goes beyond what other phone refurbishers provide.

"We're trying to bring a like-new product at a price point that is unavailable right now in the Apple range,” chief operating officer David Stritzinger said. Although the company has yet to begin U.S. sales—the most likely channel would be through a prepaid wireless service that wants to offer something better than cheap or obsolete Android phones—he estimates that an iPhone 6s with 64GB of storage would sell for $300.

Apple, meanwhile, doesn’t sell refurbished phones older than the iPhone 7, starting at $469.

That brings up another reason to give a second look to cheaper phones: a Remade iPhone 6s, along with all other models listed here, includes a headphone jack.

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Email Rob at rob@robpegoraro.com; follow him on Twitter at @robpegoraro.